State senators go back to school for a day on ethics

SACRAMENTO -- A month after suspending three lawmakers convicted of or facing criminal charges, the state Senate on Wednesday is devoting the day to reviewing ethics rules and introspection about what constitutes proper behavior for public officials.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has canceled all regular committee meetings so that every senator and staff member can attend sessions to refresh their memories on ethics rules.

The unprecedented action comes just weeks after the Senate voted to suspend Democratic state Sens. Roderick Wright of the Inglewood area, Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello and  Leland Yee of San Francisco as they fight criminal charges.

The lawmakers will meet in groups for presentations including “Creating a Culture of Ethics – A National Perspective,” by Scott Raecker, CEO of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles.

“The group sessions will include a presentation ... on strengthening standards of conduct in individual and institutional decision-making,” said a statement by Steinberg’s office.

Senators and aides are required to attend a panel discussion titled “Challenges of Legal Ethics in a Legislative Environment,” led by three attorneys with political expertise: Lance Olson, Charles H. Bell, Sr. and John Panneton, a former assistant U.S. attorney.

The panel will present lawmakers with hypothetical scenarios “that raise potential ethical and/or legal issues,” the statement said.

The scenarios will also be used by Senate chiefs of staff, committee consultants and office directors to generate staff discussions in individual Senate offices.

California Common Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng said it is significant that Democratic and Republican leaders are coming together to have a frank discussion.

“If they are truly sending a unified message that ethics is something that members should not treat as simply a compliance issue, but instead a cultural one, that is new,” Feng said.

Given the involvement of Olson and Bell, who defend politicians accused of wrongdoing in addition to helping them comply with the law, Feng said she “would be pleasantly surprised if they challenged the attitude of cynicism and politics as usual.”

Bell is defending state Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) against allegations that he laundered $40,000 in campaign funds through two county committees to his brother’s Assembly campaign.

Still, Feng said events point to better-behaved senators in the future.

“For most legislators, the prosecutions of Yee and Calderon, coupled with a stronger culture of ethics, should keep their moral compasses pointing north,” Feng said.


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